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The decline and fall of the American empire: A sliver of hope emerges


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

If the US presidential election has taught us one major lesson, it is that the American social experiment has failed. But at least a Joe Biden presidency gives us a glimmer of hope.

As we anxiously await the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States of America, one cannot but reflect on the 400-year journey of this so-called great nation. And one has to feel for Biden and his presidency coming at such a crossroads in American history.

Given the historic moment the US finds itself in, it behoves one to reflect on the long historic journey of the United States and why white supremacy has always found expression there. I won’t bore you with too much detail, suffice to mention that the civil war of independence against Great Britain from 1775-1783 paved the way for America to become the land of the free and the home of the brave. In SA, we too fought long and hard to attain our very freedoms.

Soon after the founding of the USA in 1776, slavery was the order of the day and the empire began to be built on the back of black Africans’ cheap, indentured and “chattel slavery”. Sounds familiar too.

Dan Frost (2011) writes in “Chattel Slavery” (Slavery in the Modern World), “… as a social institution, chattel slavery denies the human agency of people, by legalistically dehumanising them into chattels [personal property] owned by the slaver, therefore slaves give birth to slaves, the children of slaves are born enslaved, by way of the legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem [“that which is brought forth follows the belly”].”

From this flowed the inevitable clash between North and South in the United States, also known as the American Civil War from 1861-1865. 

There was strong disagreement with regard to the ending of slavery, with the Southern States insisting it must continue and the Northern States generally advocating for its abolition. 

The North prevailed, but the Jim Crow laws were introduced to appease the Southern States. According to Bruce Bartlett (2008), “these laws were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Southern Democrat-dominated state legislatures to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by black people”. 

The Jim Crow laws were enforced until 1965.

Then came the civil rights movement of the 1960s, under the various leaderships of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, James Farmer, Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, James Baldwin and many more.

These were major historical events, concerned with white supremacy in the US, which have left indelible marks on the psyche of all Americans. So, it comes as no surprise that a Donald Trump can win an election and blatantly advocate for white supremacy in 2020. This is precisely why this social experiment in the USA has failed. Capitalism as the preferred system of this empire has failed. 

Dr Cornel West reminds us that “its capitalist economy could not generate and deliver in such a way that people could live lives of decency. The nation state, its criminal justice system, its legal system could not generate protection of rights and liberties… 

“And now our culture, of course, is so market-driven, everybody for sale, everything for sale, it can’t deliver the kind of really real nourishment for the soul, for meaning, for purpose. 

“And so, when you get this perfect storm of all these multiple failures at these different levels of the American empire, about militarism, about poverty and materialism and indeed about racism and all its forms plus xenophobia.  

“What we see in America is now these chickens coming home to roost. You reap what you sow.” West concludes (and I agree), that “it looks as if the system cannot reform itself”. 

He says “we’ve tried black faces in high places. Too often, our black politicians, professional class, middle class, become too accommodated to the capitalist economy, too accommodated to the militarised nation state, too accommodated to the market-driven culture, tied to celebrity status, power, fame, all of that superficial stuff that means so much to so many fellow citizens”.

West continues: “What happens is we got a neo-fascist gangster in the White House, who really doesn’t care, for the most part. You got a neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party that is now in the driver’s seat, and they don’t really know what to do, ’cause all they want is show more black faces, show more black faces, but oftentimes these black faces are losing legitimacy, too.

“The Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a black president, black attorney general, and black homeland security boss and they couldn’t deliver. 

“So, when you talk about the masses of black people, the precious poor and working-class black people, they’re the ones that are left out, and they feel so thoroughly powerless, helpless, hopeless, and then this is what breeds rebellion.”

He concludes that “we’ve reached a point now, it’s a choice between non-violent revolution, and by revolution what I mean is, the democratic sharing of power, resources, wealth, and respect. If we don’t get that kind of sharing, you’re gonna get more violent explosions.”

Such as what we are experiencing in Senekal in the Free State and Brackenfell in the Western Cape, here in Mzansi perhaps? South Africa is confronted with similar difficult questions. Are the neo-liberal economic outlook and policies the best we can imagine? Even though we have a world-class Constitution and Bill of Rights, does it mean we respect each other? Do our diverse cultures not permit us to come together as one nation? Our mainstream politics are also in the same dire straits as that in America.  And as Dr West reminds us above, “when you talk about the masses of black people, the precious poor and working-class black people, they’re the ones that are left out, and they feel so thoroughly powerless, helpless, hopeless, and then this is what breeds rebellion”.

Looking at these recent presidential elections, the polarisation of American politics and the ongoing struggle of black folk in the US, Joe Biden has his work cut out for him. 

But if we expect to see major changes on these fronts – if we have an unrealistic expectation that Biden can fix a failed social experiment such as the US – we will be disappointed.

However, between Joe Biden, the neo-liberal disaster, and Donald Trump, the neo-fascist catastrophe, a Biden presidency is likely to be better. But it’s on a very small scale of probability. DM 



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  • Mike Griffiths says:

    How can a 250 year old democracy be called a social experiment? A failed one at that! What are the successful “social experiments” that Mr Van Heerden is comparing the US to? This article may have been more palatable had it been in the author’s own ideas but half of it is quoted from other peoples’ work and he had avoided the undertone of gloating that permeates the piece. How does he measure failure? By a few nasty political skirmishes and discontent of a dissatisfied minority? Most Americans are hard-working, law-abiding and patriotic citizens whose government does purloin their taxes, run their institutions into the ground and incompetently micro- manage their lives. Hundreds of thousands of would -be immigrants (many from the “successful social experiments) every year endeavour to make this failure their home. This failed social experiment, leads the world in scientific and technological output, dispenses largesse to world bodies and starving nations and has an over-whelming influence on world culture. Some failed social experiment!

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